What use is sight without vision?
One of my fond childhood memories is that of visiting the hydel station cum water pump at Bhola, near Meerut City with my father. We took a public bus, which was divided into two zones – the front and the rear – and there was a differential in ticket. The road was a mix of strips of masonry and asphalt. The sight of gushing water was amazing! There were massive fruit-laden trees. We returned in the evening.
After my father passed away in 1979, that connection was severed. But my younger brother developed a spiritual bonding with Swami Vivekanand Sarasvatiji, who had an ashram in the vicinity of the hydel station, and I visited him many times. Awareness dawned upon me that the water stream was in fact the Upper Ganges Canal built during 1842 to 1854 by the East India Company, connecting Haridwar to Aligarh for irrigation and as a waterway.
Once, in 1969, while returning from Haridwar, we passed through the Solani Aqueduct in Roorkee. The driver stooped the bus briefly so that everyone could see how the Upper Ganges Canal was flowing over a 300-meter-long bridge crossing over the Solani River. One passenger announced that the song, “Nanha Munna Rahi Hun, Desh Ka Sipahi Hun” — from the 1962 film, “Son of India” was picturized at this location. Of course, I was more interested in looking at the pairs of large stone lions, placed at each end of the aqueduct.
In 1998, when Dr APJ Abdul Kalam went to the convocation of Roorkee Engineering College, now the Indian Institute of Technology, I assisted him in writing his speech. The speech recalled how this engineering college was started in 1847 to teach engineering to “the natives” to meet the need of constructing the Upper Ganges Canal and was later named The Thomason College of Civil Engineering. Dr Kalam thundered, “Those ‘natives’ have put a satellite into orbit and have now a Nuclear Weapon!”
A nation moves ahead through big projects. The Manhattan Project that produced the first nuclear weapons decided the ending of World War II. Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904 -1967) inspired Dr Homi J. Bhabha and Prof Vikram Sarabhai, whose leadership would later create BARC and ISRO. U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, announced the goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade and it eventually happened. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River was a major project that put China on the road to become a World Power.
So, where are our big projects? After the Light Combat Aircraft that made its maiden flight in 2001 could not be productionized till 2016 for political reasons, India is yet to see something big happening. Where are the new Nuclear Power Stations? The plan of Thorium-based reactors? Our passenger aircraft? Our Bullet Train? Why have we become a society continuously arguing on every little thing and unable to see the big picture and afraid to take strides? A big nation ought to think big, do big, and deliver big.
What are the big dreams India can have? Becoming a 5-trillion economy is a neat, right, and doable dream. It is unfortunate that rather than a discussion on “how,” there is a chorus of naysayers, ridiculing the idea itself as if this nation must forever remain a nation of daily-wage farm labourers. Why not have ten of India’s higher education institutes in world ranking? A medical college with a 1000-bed hospital in every district? A house for every family? Tap water in every home? No open drainage in any city of more than a million people? If these things happen, the rest will happen automatically.
India must get rid of its perennial flood problem. This one “project” will transform our villages. Floods in India are turning more severe, unpredictable, and rather intractable every year. It is a no-brainer that hundreds of water courses originate from the Himalayas flooding Kosi, Gandak, Damodar, Brahmaputra and Mahanadi in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and wash away properties and livelihoods of millions of people who as a result, live in perennial poverty. The Western Ghats have become the new flood zones and cloudburst-like situations are playing havoc every year.
Why is the country of legendary engineer, Dr M. Visvesvaraya, shying away from discussing a River-linking project? We need to wake up to the fact that India accounts for 18% of the world population, which will become 20% and eventually 25% by 2050, and has about 4% of the world’s water resources, which will turn less than 2% in the same period. Which other solutions would solve the country’s water woes but to link our rivers? People getting killed by water in some areas and dying from dehydration in some other parts can’t be our destiny.
Beyond water security, the canals as waterways would ease the stress on transport infrastructure, hydro power would feed grid, and fish farming would broaden income sources in rural areas. The cost of power generation by solar power is steadily declining and soon, say by 2025, renewable power would be available for water lifting/pumping, giving an advantage that was never there. But such an enterprise must be immune from electoral politics and declared by the Parliament as a National Mission.
The cost of not doing this is going to be existential. No national economy operates in isolation. People with vehicles at the petrol pumps swallow this bitter truth every day. The bumper crops in irrigated areas and dismal situation of rain-fed farming is a fact well laid out. I personally saw the chorus of “disaster” when the Sardar Sarovar Dam was created to better utilize the water of the Narmada in Gujarat. But now that it has happened, the transformation that has come is apparent and undeniable. We can’t condemn people living in river-basins to suffer every year and flourish as a nation.
The Katha Upanishad declares, उत्तिष्ठत जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत – Arise, awake, find those who know and learn from them (1.3.14). The nation has seen enough of electoral bickering and petty politics during the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, there is nothing for which any one can claim any credit. The system has exposed its inadequacies and the society, its organic defects. Why can we not come out of the hypnotic spell of words like “world leader”, “superpower” and the “largest democracy” and show something real for the good of the people, especially the poor and the powerless, who are fast losing hope.
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